“I’d meet a good girl / but I’d make a terrible boy”

“I’d meet a good girl / but I’d make a terrible boy”

(I’d meet a good boy / but I’d make a terrible girl)

CW: Gender dysphoria, depression, suicidality


 

I remember once upon a time, long before I knew being trans or genderqueer was a possibility… I couldn’t conceive of what exactly, only that something was amiss. I never knew its name. It was always there under the surface, a quiet and improbable voice whispering an indecipherable code. I loved femininity. I was thrilled when my mom took me to the Estée Lauder counter to get a makeover and my first real “grown up” makeup kit. I loved my high femme existence, replete with heels, skirts, corsets, and lace. But it always felt… false. Something in me doubted the “naturalness” of this identity.

It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy it, or that I don’t enjoy these things now, but it always felt like a put-on. Smoke and mirrors. A form of drag…

As a very young child I wanted to be one of the boys. I wanted to skateboard and pretended not to be squeamish when my step brother and his friends would play with tadpole guts. But I didn’t want to be a boy, so much as be seen as one of the boys.

The inability to ever articulate these feelings fully was at turns confusing and maddening. I realized I was shuffled into the “girl” category, but I had no idea how to do girl. Other girls my age seemed to get it, to understand some crucial piece of the puzzle I simply failed to grasp. They liked boys the right way… They wanted to sit in boys’ laps, and not have them sit in their laps. They wanted to be rescued by the boys, not be their body guards. They liked the boys who bullied the sissies, and I developed crush after crush on gay boy after gay boy. (This, by the way, has never changed. To this day the most appealing AMAB folks are those who read as femme of center – my sweetie supports this by gifting me with books about Brian Molko and signed 8″x10″s of Kevin Barnes.) It wasn’t until I started sharing my fantasies that I realized something was very different about the way I felt desire; but it didn’t stop there.

Somewhere between being bigger and heavier than my peers and feeling uncertain in a body being increasingly read as female made me excruciatingly self conscious. I vividly remember hating gym class for a whole host of reasons… In my school district in the early 2000’s, there was no room to be queer and bad at sports. You had to pick one or the other, and I failed on both counts.

And you certainly couldn’t be queer in the locker room. I would sequester myself to an unseen corner of the girls’ room and change, both for my own good and that of my classmates. I didn’t want them to worry I was checking them out, and I absolutely didn’t want them to catch even a scant glimpse of any inch of my bare skin.

This didn’t ever dissuade me from embracing my sexuality, however. Even if my straight counterparts hated me, I found refuge in the bodies of the fellow queers with whom I shared some of the most tender and immensely fucked up explorations. I hurt others and found myself hurt, but along the way I put a few pieces together.

I stopped calling myself bisexual at some point and adopted “pansexual.” After a sweet (and patient) fuckbuddy of mine explained why she reclaimed the word “queer” for political reasons, I realized sex was more than just for pleasure, but was a form of activism in and of itself. Being branded deviant now meant I had community and a sense of belonging, and something to fight for, whereas before it had made me miserable.

So I had some things figured out… I liked women, men, and after joining various dating sites and meeting trans and intersex people, I realized I could very easily be attracted to and love anyone, irrespective of their gender or genital configuration. In a perhaps ironic twist of fate, it was my friendships and romantic interactions with trans women that led me to realize that there was something other than mere attracting stirring within me, but a sense of self-recognition.

A decade after having heard the word “genderqueer” for the first time, I realized I could apply the label to myself. I had felt for so long that I wasn’t allowed somehow, because I enjoyed being femme. Just by knowing other people with an experience similar enough, I was given the permission I believed I needed to become a more authentic version of myself. Yet it would still be a number of years before I would meet anyone trans or non-binary who was AFAB – and certainly very few who had retained a positive relationship with their femininity… Given a shitty blueprint, I attempted to “butch up,” but that form of drag felt just as false as all the others. A fun costume to adopt sometimes, perhaps, but ultimately not the right fit.

As I think back on the times when only a dim bulb of my gender otherness began to be visible, I wonder if the dysphoria would have killed me, or if I could have persevered as a closeted “cis” person. For many trans people, the pain is unbearable, and they feel the only remedy is to end their lives. While I’ve experienced depression and hurt, and I’ve even had suicidal thoughts that have plagued me for months, in the back of my mind there’s a far louder “yeah, right” that chimes in, and reminds me that checking out now would mean missing out on the cool shit coming around the bend. (There it is – the secret to my unflappable optimism. I’m forever stuck in FOMO limbo.) While it wouldn’t be a comfortable or healthy existence, I doubt I would actually die.

Personally, I’m wary of the narrative that transition is the only option for trans people, and that to deny transition-related care means to deny a life-saving medical intervention. While this is true for many, many people, it is not true for all of us. For some of us, chemical or surgical intervention isn’t desirable at all. For other still, we are not on the brink of death and this may not be saving our lives, but our lives are worth more than simple survival. We deserve to survive, and we also deserve to flourish. We deserve to make the most of the time we have on the planet. We deserve to be as comfortable, beautiful, and whole as we can be. In my opinion, we all deserve to be believed and treated as we need – and it is only up to us to decide what that looks like.

I definitely know I can’t “go back.” The toothpaste is officially out of the tube, and I’ve long since outed myself politically, personally, professionally. I am fully open to the idea that my gender will continue to be fluid throughout my life, and I embrace the possibilities and iterations of self to come. I know this is at least one step on my right path, and I cannot wait to see where it all goes.


 

photo credit: the author

“Talkin’ ’bout my generation”

“Talkin’ ’bout my generation”

I’ll resist the temptation to post the nigh obligatory “Winter Is Coming” meme and just point out that I’ve been hermiting and watching a lot of Netflix lately. And I’ll counter the opinions of many who claim to current Golden Age of Television is dead; between House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, Grace and Frankie, and scores of other Netflix exclusive films and shows, this era of on-demand, ad-free, quality television is something completely unthinkable to me as a young person. We had movies on demand through cable, but between Hulu, Amazon Prime, Netflix, and countless ahem more dubious opportunities to stream media, it’s never seemed more accessible. While these upstart streaming services may have seemed a base form of entertainment at first, it’s becoming apparent that they’re quite the contenders when contrasted with standard cable television. These venues also become a place for underrepresented voices to be heard, from trans woman of color Sophia played by Laverne Cox on OItNB to aging, closeted gay men and their families on G&F.

Enter Master of None by rising star Aziz Ansari. (Spoilers below thru-out.)

I’ll admit a few things right off the bat. Some of Ansari’s stand-up leaves me cold. It always feels like something I want to like more than I do, because Ansari himself is a likable dude. However, his Live at Madison Square Garden special made me have faith in his stand up (and stand up in general) once more. Here’s a cisgender man talking about how women face street harassment, the complexities of how we westerners get our foods, and tensions between generations of Asian American immigrants. It was refreshing, and fucking funny. I laughed and snapped my way through the special like I haven’t been able to do with stand up in quite a while.

Many of “the rules” of stand up have changed since I was a teenager – and for good reason. Punching up as a concept is now more universally understood and accepted; its meaner big brother, the “equal opportunity offender” is dying out. Those who bemoan the changing tides of “political correctness” sound like dinosaurs, and many younger comedians garner their appeal from being savvy on social justice concerns. While imperfect, the influx of female comedians gaining in popularity over the last decade – from Tina Fey and Amy Pohler, to Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer have shown that women who talk openly about feminism are not only funny, but can become comedy powerhouses. Even in the brief time between Fey and Pohler’s ascent to Jacobson and Glazer’s has been transformative in terms of how far the popular consciousness has come. In short, we demand more now from our entertainers.

Ansari has risen to the challenge in many ways. His series, Master of None picks up on points only hinted at during his Madison Square Garden special. Here we get a panoramic view of what it means to be a first generation Asian American. The show deals with racism in the entertainment industry and feeling pigeonholed as a minority. It pays homage to the struggles a previous generation endured in order to secure  a better life for their children, while owning up to some of the cultural differences between the two that cause them to be somewhat estranged from each other. Denise, a butch lesbian of color, features prominently as a recurring character, and her sex life becomes part of the discourse in a way that feels naturalized rather than objectified. Here again, as with his special, Ansari makes room for the stories of women and street harassment to have air time – even acknowledging how men tend to downplay these stories.

For all of its home runs, the show falls flat in two key ways… First, the material of the first few episodes is fresh, groundbreaking, and even subversive. During the last three episodes however, the show devolves into, well, a kind of tired rom-com. Second, during the Indians On TV episode, Ansari and co. delve into the struggles of overcoming racist stereotypes so ingrained in our popular representations, and the ramifications this has on casting decisions and opportunities for work for southeast Asian actors. They discuss whether or not it’s appropriate to use “a voice” that sounds like what western audiences are accustomed to hearing come out of Indian mouths; particularly if it’s nothing to close to how the actor normally speaks. Mindy Kaling is invoked by name during this episode, and the absence of her or any other Indian woman (other than the lead character’s mother) becomes, in that moment, especially glaring. Indeed, much of the show deals with the main character, Dev’s love life, but his only love interests are white women. Claire Danes cameos aside, it’s disappointing to see these casting choices made after an entire episode dealing with racism in popular media. While this does lead to an opportunity to discuss the dynamics of interracial couples (which the show successfully does) it is disappointing to see no Indian women of Ansari’s generation represented. As someone who is a third generation Indian (and mutt; that is, a host of other racial and ethnic backgrounds as well) it’s always a sore spot that there are so few Indian women and nearly zero Indian queer or trans folks in any sort of western limelight. This feels like an overlooked opportunity for another Indian to gain notoriety.

Don’t get me wrong – Master of None is a fine series. Compared to the also recently released W/ Bob and David by sketch comedy veterans Bob Odenkirk and David Cross (replete with Muslim stereotypes, threats to visually depict the prophet Mohammed, a hearing person using a Deaf “voice,” and actual, literal blackface) Master is comedy gold on a silver platter. If my social media feeds are anything to go by, it’s definitely inspiring some thoughtful conversation, the way any good comedy should.


Photo credit: Pitchfork.com

“A Woman In Trouble” – Part III

“A Woman In Trouble” – Part III

This is the third in a three-part installment on the work of David Lynch and its relationship to feminism, just in time for the long-awaited release of season 3 of Twin Peaks, now slated for 2017.

Enjoy!


My favorite work of Lynch’s, Eraserhead, is perhaps his most enigmatic. The film, which reads like a nightmare, deals with the feelings of dread and inadequacy surrounding new-found fatherhood. This is Lynch at his most raw. The malformed baby the protagonist Henry (played by Jack Nance) must learn to care for is fragile, terrifying, and exceeds the skill set of its parent. To fail to provide means its death – a fear common to all parents who are just learning to sustain a life that is not their own. Henry’s masculinity in general is put to task as the Lady in the Radiator squashes large, globular sperms with her high heels in a playful, mischievous way as the viewer-as-Henry helplessly looks on. Henry’s longing for his neighbor juxtaposed against his own shyness and duties as a father communicate a subordinate, introverted masculinity. The fact that this is Lynch’s first feature length film makes the above all the more impressive – rather than hiding behind the camera, Lynch is putting himself on display to be examined.

I would also argue that the “gaze” of Lynch’s work isn’t always clear. Sweet and intimate friendships like Donna and Laura’s and Shelly and Norma’s in TP came well before Garfunkel and Oates or Broad City. Indeed, Ronette, Laura, and Theresa Banks share a kind of camaraderie as sex workers that humanizes them and exemplifies the special kind of friendship that can develop among women in this profession. Mulholland Drive’s Betty/Diane and Rita/Camilla serve as a sort of Hitchcockian hapless victim/rescuer dyad which evolves into a romantic and sexual relationship, in much the same way viewers are habituated to expect with heterosexual pairings. This allows for a subversive twist on the typically straight film noir genre. While it’s possible to argue that this choice was made for the titillation of male, heterosexual viewers, I can say that as a young queer person viewing this in a theater with my mom, it was nothing short of… Well, let’s just say awkward as hell.

Here again, though, it cannot go without noting that Naomi Watts has been publicly vocal about her discomfort with some of the scenes in the film, particularly the masturbation sequence. As a feminist and someone who has directed and starred in erotic films, the comfort of my performers is always at the forefront of my mind, and it gives me pause as to the nature of Lynch’s on-set director/performer dynamics. It would be intellectually and ethically dishonest to say I don’t find this potentially problematic. Being the one “behind the camera” brings with it all sorts of privileges, namely that you are in charge of image creation. You decide what the performers do, how they are framed, lit, etc. Being in front of the camera is a considerably more vulnerable position, and if I ever had the chance, I’d

Those who decide they cannot support Lynch due to his depiction of women have my understanding and support, even though I remain a devoted fan. This brings me back to where we started… My new friend at the bar. After I realized my words had little sway over someone who had never seen anything of his, and I was possibly getting into the territory of talking her out of it, I decided to back down and enjoy the rest of my drink. But this conversation had given me the chance to reflect, and to begin to articulate feelings about and artist I’ve admired for so long, but have had little success in describing.

I for one know I’m looking forward to what’s in store for those of us who’ve waited patiently these long 25 years to be reunited with the weirdest small town in television history. Twin Peaks has forever changed the face of American TV, and it will be interesting to see how it fares with new audiences having their first bites of that cherry pie so good it’ll kill ya.

Photo credit: luisalvaradob.tumblr.com

“A Woman In Trouble” – Part II

“A Woman In Trouble” – Part II

This is the second in a three-part installment on the work of David Lynch and its relationship to feminism, just in time for the long-awaited release of season 3 of Twin Peaks, now slated for 2017.

Enjoy!

CW: Discussion of sexual assault, IPV


One thing I’ve learned over the years about Lynch’s works is that they’re not an easy watch (See: preceding reference to racism, sexism, ableism, and transphobia).  On TP, characters of color, such as Josie Packard and Tommy “Hawk” Hill (yep, that’s really his name) speak in stilted English, or adhere to vague animist traditions that don’t refer to an actual, specific culture (Tommy’s tribal heritage is never named). Johnny and Audrey Horne suffers from unnamed intellectual and emotional disabilities which manifest in a mishmash of symptoms (he beats his head against a dollhouse when he learns of Laura Palmer’s murder; she is depicted as a hypersexualized coquette, yet simultaneously naïve and emotionally disturbed). David Duchovny’s character, DEA agent Denise Bryson, has received plenty of flack for being insensitive to the trans community.

And then there’s the violence. All of the violence. I feel like I need to offer a content warning before I even begin to explain the depth and intensity of the sexual violence, incest, intimate partner violence, and psychic/emotional trauma that are woven into the very fabric of the show. Most of the horrific violence is perpetrated against women; indeed the central whodunit of the show revolves around the rape and murder of a small town’s beloved teenage girl. Yet, as I explained to my less than impressed new friend at the bar, it has never felt gratuitous to me. Really. As I explained to her, I trust where Lynch takes his audience and why. The first few episodes of TP show how distraught everyone in the community is over this crime. Laura Palmer is a human being. Unlike CSI or Law and Order: SVU, she isn’t simply one in a parade of desecrated bodies discovered by a wisecracking team of investigators completely numb to the atrocity of it all. Indeed, her death shakes an entire community who has known her since her birth.

The violence visited upon Shelly Johnson at the hands of her husband Leo are nothing short of traumatizing, particularly for those of us who have lived through the misery of such relationships. The first time the viewer sees Ronette Pulaski, she is crossing a bridge back into Twin Peaks, bruised, bloodied, and in a state of shock after a night of unspeakable abuse. For the sake of those who haven’t seen the series, I won’t give away the identity of Laura’s murderer, but all I can say is take care of yourself when/if you get around to watching the prequel, Fire Walk with Me. Yet amid all of these haunting stories and gruesome images emerges a strange sense of “empathy with” rather than “sympathy for” the survivors and victims.

This brings me to perhaps one of the most nebulous and fascinating parts of Lynch’s work. I consistently fail to be able to fully articulate this to another person when I discuss my love for his oeuvre but I’ll give it a try… Lynch is an absolute genius when it comes to capturing and relaying a feeling. Indeed, TP’s major themes rely on trusting one’s gut, paying attention to feelings, and refraining from relying entirely on the logical and objective. Agent Dale Cooper (played by Kyle MacLachlan) is both the hegemonic ideal of urbane, white masculinity and driven largely by his ability to tap into his intuition.

Aside from how the characters are crafted, Lynch’s work manages to transport the viewer into worlds that feel like they’re a real slice of the director’s subconscious in a way few directors dare to do. Rather than sprawling and domineering, most of Lynch’s films occupy an intimate, even claustrophobic landscape. Interpersonal relationship dynamics and private fears are splashed across the big screen for all to see. Like the robust works of Jackson Pollock, the supposedly masculine strokes speak to a more chaotic and panicked interior; inner turmoil is at the forefront, cranked to a scream rather than sequestered to their typical whisper.


Tune in next week for Part III, wherein we wrap up our discussion!

Photo credit: WomenWriteAboutComics.com

“A Woman In Trouble” – Part I

“A Woman In Trouble” – Part I

This is the first in a three-part installment on the work of David Lynch and its relationship to feminism, just in time for the long-awaited release of season 3 Twin Peaks on Showtime slated for 2016… or 2017.

Enjoy!


“No, but really –“ I assured her as I started to pick up my pace, “most of his films pass the Bechdel test, and in fact more often than not feature women working cooperatively rather than antagonistically. The vast majority have what I would consider the kind of ‘strong female lead’ that would put feminist poster boy Joss Whedon’s work to shame!” I took a sip of my Twin Peaks-themed cocktail (the One Armed Man) at the bar of a local eatery which has kept them on the menu for the last year or so. I’d been attempting to win over another patron who admitted she’d never seen the show.

I went on to wax philosophic about how Mulholland Drive flipped the traditional film noir trope of the troubled dame rescued by the gruff gumshoe on its head by foisting the naïve and bubbly Betty (played by Naomi Watts) into the lesbian savior role in the enigmatic 2001 thriller. I cited Laura Dern’s masterful and grossly underrated performance in Inland Empire, portraying multiple characters ranging from prim and constrained to rough and gritty to fearful and confused in a nearly 3-hour existential clusterfuck that taps into the darkest parts of the self. I offered that  90’s pop culture icon Laura Palmer, (played by Sheryl Lee) in her more-than-meets-the-eye, homecoming-queen-gone-bad messiness, reads quite a bit like the title character in Donnie Darko – the fated, sacrificial Christ figure – with a Courtney Love twist.

Her eyes started to glaze over. Maybe I was edging into hypomania. Maybe I just have a lot of feelings about David Lynch.

The will-they-or-won’t-they do-si-do surrounding the Twin Peaks revival slated for 2016 has left many a fan (your faithful narrator included) twisting in agony. Will Showtime pony up the dough to make the dream of so many TP dorks come alive? Will the third season, 25 years in the making, have to be housed on Amazon or Netflix, allowing us to barricade ourselves in and binge watch with a pot of damn fine coffee and cherry pie? Will we have to cringe through racist, sexist, ableist, and transphobic stereotypes (for believe me, there were many) as we did with the original series?

If being a devotee of Lynch’s for the past 16 years has taught me anything, it’s that he loves to keep his fans guessing. This is the part that I connect with the most. You see, I’ve always been a fan of magic tricks, but I never want to know how they’re done. I have no interest. For me, that takes away all the fun. I remember watching Lost Highway with friends in one of our parents’ basements as teens, and afterward we discussed at length just what the fuck had happened in that movie. We developed theories, some infused with elements of mythology (Bill Pullman’s character gets a headache and becomes another person? Sounds like how Zeus birthed Athena to me). Some of them led us to dead ends (wait, but that hadn’t happened at that point in the film – had it?). The discussion was just as enjoyable as watching the film itself. In Mulholland Drive, Naomi Watts’s character actually finds mysterious puzzle pieces that don’t reveal their purpose until the very end. And even then the viewer is left perplexed and uneasy. (I won’t spoil it for you, but I’m also not sure that I could.)


Tune in next week for Part II, wherein we discuss where the feminism part comes in!

Photo credit: TVLine.com